I have more things than I need.
Over the last several years, I’ve made a conscious effort to pare down my possessions. Most of the stuff I consider “mine” would fit into one room in our house. I could live in my office, in other words, which is about 100 square feet or so, if I slept on an air mattress on the floor. If I were single again, I’d be content with a much smaller house.
I still have far more things than I need.
Why do I say that? First of all, we need to look at why exactly I have these things to begin with.
Why do I have shelves full of books I’ve already read or books that I haven’t read yet? The only real reason to keep a book I’ve already read is because I think I might re-read it again someday or because it’s something I use for reference on a regular basis. My “reference” books number about 30 or so, and my to-be-read books add up to the same. Why do I have hundreds of books?
Why do I have a large board game collection full of games that I’ve only played once or twice? I like to play games at least a few dozen times, but right now many of my games are at a much lower play count. Given the frequency with which I play, I’ll probably not feel like I’ve really played most of my games “enough” for many years. Plus, many of these games are owned by others in the game groups I participate in. Why do I have all of these games?
Why do we have so many extra things in the kitchen? We don’t really need all of these extra pots and pans and other items. Our storage space under the counter is chock full of stuff, but we rarely use more than a couple of the things – the Pyrex baking dishes, for instance, and the large French ovens that we use for everything. Most of the rest just sits there, unused. Why do we have all of this stuff?
Here’s the truth: It is really hard to get rid of the stuff that you have. At the same time, it’s pretty easy to convince yourself to acquire more stuff, even when you already have stuff sitting at home that’s practically unused.
In both respects, making the wrong choice is expensive. The books and games and kitchen items (and everything else) sitting on the shelves represent money that’s just sitting there. If I sold those items, I could actually invest that money where it’s earning a return.
Furthermore, every additional item I buy means that the time spent using all of the things I already have is split even more than before. I literally paid money to have less opportunity to use the stuff I already have.
Beyond even that, there’s very little that I have that I can’t borrow from others – I can get books at the library or games from the community board game nights I attend. Beyond that, having a bunch of items means more maintenance – more dusting, more effort in moving items around, more effort in redecorating, and so on.
Again, why do I have so much stuff? And why do I repeatedly choose to hold onto it?
One big reason is the perception of lost opportunities. Whenever I consider getting rid of something, I envision scenarios where I might use it in the future. Often, these scenarios seem realistic, but they’re not actually realistic.
For example, I might think about a board game night that doesn’t go well because I no longer have some specific game that someone wants to play. Another example: I’ll envision a situation where I’m making a dish in the kitchen and I need a particular kitchen tool and somehow the dish won’t work without it.
Another reason is the subtle pleasure of seeing the items. I might not play all of the games on my shelf, but it is fun to look at the shelf and examine all of the games on it. Of course, I don’t lose all that much fun if my collection were, say, half of the size that it is. A collection of 20 games offers a ton of possibilities as one looks at their shelf, just as a collection of 50 games does.
Yet another reason is the effort in getting rid of the stuff. To get a decent value for many of the items we have, we have to spend some time shipping them and listing them online and so on. That takes time and effort. Even if we simply go the “yard sale” route, it still means devoting a good chunk of a weekend (and receiving much less for the items than by other routes).
So, here are the real take-home lessons from all of this.
I need to apply a very strong and critical eye to any new nonperishable items that I buy. If it’s something that’s going to be sticking around our house for a while, do I really need it? Do I really need this new book with the books I already have on my shelves? Do I really need this new game with the games I already have on my shelves? Do I really need this new paintbrush? Do I really need this new kitchen item when I have items that do similar things already?
I need to slowly pare down my collections when it’s convenient. As I said above, it does take a lot of effort to sell off possessions if you’re trying to get a decent return for them. Instead, I just keep my ears open for opportunities to sell them off. I’ve sold games at board game nights to people interested in picking up specific games. Occasionally, I’ll list batches of items on Craigslist, but I do it at my own convenience. The goal here is to get a decent return for my stuff, but also to pare down the stuff that I own.
I need to reconsider why stuff, rather than experiences, brings me joy. Why exactly do I feel happy about seeing a bunch of stuff sitting on my shelves? Where is the source of that joy? I think it comes from a childhood where I didn’t always have the things that I wanted, but when I’m honest with myself, I realize that’s an illusion. Having that stuff doesn’t really bring me joy. What brings me joy is experiences – making a meal, playing a game, and so on. Authentic joy doesn’t come from having something on a shelf.
I need to use my stuff – and if I don’t, it’s a sign that I’m not really the person that I think that I am. If I have a pile of books that I feel like I’m excited to read… but then I don’t really read them… what does that mean? It means that perhaps my taste in books and passion about specific books isn’t want I thought it was. That doesn’t mean I’m bad or that the books are bad. It just means I need to rethink both my tastes and how I’m spending my time.
I need to remember also that my life choices are an example for my children, both in straightforward ways and less obvious ways. This is always a part of my thinking regarding everything that I choose to do. My children are watching and learning from me. What am I teaching them with my choices?
Remember, an ideal life is one where you get a lot of fulfillment out of how you spend your time and that you have possessions that support that fulfillment. Possessions that don’t support that fulfillment are unnecessary. They just soak up your money and your financial freedom. They fill up space and make you live in a larger home than necessary. They require you to spend more time doing maintenance – dusting, moving things around, and so forth.
Do I need to make radical changes to my life, my possessions, and how I buy things? No.
Do I need to be more mindful about the things that I own and the things that I’m considering buying? Absolutely.
Every single step that I take in terms of understanding why I spend money and how I can spend that money more effectively in terms of making the best life possible is a victory. It means I’m better able to build a joyful life for myself and my family on less money than before, which in turn means that I have more and more freedom with regards of how to spend my time and energy.
The challenge, of course, is turning that understanding into day-to-day life. I need to work harder on not acquiring more stuff and slowly getting rid of my less used stuff.
Understanding why I’m doing this is one thing. Putting it into practice is another.